The Upside of Plan Nord: Spokespeople Defend Quebec Mining Industry at Employment Fair – by Michael Wrobel (The Link – February 12, 2013)

The Link is Concordia University’s independent newspaper since 1980.

While protesters rallied passionately outside Montreal’s convention centre in opposition, business leaders inside the Salon des ressources naturelles defended the mining industry’s practices and protocol in northern Quebec.

The convention—held Feb. 8 and Feb. 9 at the Palais des congrès de Montréal—was met with two days of rowdy demonstrations that saw hundreds speak out against Plan Nord.

The View From Inside

“Of course, in Quebec, we have freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and this is an interesting opportunity for those who are concerned about social causes to come out and make their points of view known,” said Jean Carrier, president and CEO of the Institut national des mines, a government agency that oversees mining education and training programs in the province.

“[But] often, the people who are demonstrating against the mining industry or the principle of royalties don’t perhaps have all the information needed to arrive at conclusions that are objective.”

The mining industry has come a long way in terms of environmental restoration and sustainability, according to Guylaine Beaupré, the communications manager at the Comité sectoriel de main-d’oeuvre de l’industrie des mines, an organization that brings together business leaders and workers’ associations.

“Everything has been organized even before the beginning of exploration in terms of what will be done to restore the site,” she said. “It’s not like 40 years ago when we’d leave mines open to the sky and the site would be completely contaminated by chemicals.”

Beaupré says that such negligence is no longer tolerated, and that now, prior to any construction, a restoration plan must already have been drafted.

She said mining companies do a lot to make sure that their projects are socially acceptable to the communities in which they operate.

“The mining companies that have upstart projects do a lot of public consultation,” she said. “They are very implicated on the community level, on the level of their immediate environment.”

A Constructive Collaboration

Beaupré thinks a misunderstanding of work being done is responsible for the negative perception people have of the mining industry.

Beyond restoring the environment and providing funds to community projects, she said, mining companies also provide employment, create wealth and extract the minerals that go into the products we use every day.

For this reason, Beaupré objects to the notion that mining companies are simply “depleting resources” without benefiting local communities.

“[Mining companies] put in hundreds of thousands of dollars in foundations, in the infrastructure of the towns. If we spoke to people in Matagami or in Fermont, these people aren’t opposed to the mines,” she said.

Céliane Dorval, a spokesperson for Xstrata Nickel, said the company’s Raglan mine in northern Quebec has a good relationship with nearby Inuit communities.

Xstrata signed the Raglan Agreement in 1995 in order to guarantee a “close dialogue” with affected nearby communities and to make sure that the mine is a win-win for all involved.

“Among other things, we have a profit-sharing clause, which means that each year we give a percentage of our profits in benefits to the neighbouring Inuit communities and to the Makivik Corporation, which is responsible for the socio-economic development of Nunavik.”

Dorval also says that Xstrata offers a two-year training program and employment opportunities to residents of the Inuit communities of Salluit and Kangiqsujuaq.

“Around 18 per cent of our employees are Inuit,” she said. “We’re very proud of that, though we’re always looking to reach the 20 per cent mark.”

Demystifying Mines

Nathalie LeMay, the communications department head at Rio Tinto Iron and Titanium, said increasing the “social acceptability” of a project requires far more than a mere public relations exercise.

“It’s about working collaboratively with the milieu, or of finding ways for both parties to benefit from the development of a new mine—or even from an existing mine,” she said. “If I give the example of our Havre-Saint-Pierre mine, which has been operating for 60 years, we’ve noticed that there are new ways of working with communities that are near the site, to understand their needs, as well as those of the company, and to see how we can work together.”

LeMay said that Rio Tinto tries to put in place structures that ensure communities continue to benefit even after a mine has closed.

As for the protests against the Plan Nord, the provincial government’s plan for northern development, Beaupré said that more could be done to “demystify” the benefits of mining development among the public—but that the protesters’ positions constitute a minority view.

“They’re marginal, the people who protest against [the mining projects],” she said. “I can understand that there are people who will be repulsed, but if tomorrow morning we told them that they no longer had their smart phones and their computers because we can no longer explore the mines—I’m not sure that these people would want it to go down like that.”

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